A Bizarre Essay in Which I Relate Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America to the Keep on the Borderlands

Well, i didn’t think I’d get a gaming related post out of de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, but maybe I did after all. I’m only half-way through, intending to begin Vol.II sometime soon, and I’ll admit the reading is laborious as a)it is the first English translation which is both archaic and free-wheeling with some of de Tocqueville’s actual intent, b) the edition I have is riddled with typos; apparently no copy editor felt it worth reading the whole book because they anticipated how few would take the time to read it cover to cover (the quantity and blatantness of the typos seem to pick up midway through and get progressively worse up to the end), and c) I have a new baby kitten who demands a lot of attention.

I have a lot of more useful and productive thoughts that have been inspired by the work, such as my ideas on how a standardization of the teaching of US history nationwide in public schools has undermined the sovereignty of the individual republics by denying their citizens a national identity beyond the Federal government over the course of the last century (damn you and your ilk, Dewey, all playing the long game against the American people!), but that’s not why you clicked on this post on a tabletop gaming blog.

I’ve blogged a bit on Keep on the Borderlands and the nature of each ‘side’ in the standoff. As has been pointed out, the Caves of Chaos are not actually defensible and constitue soft targets, as opposed to the Keep, a bastion of civilization that, barring catastrophy, will stand on the forefront of borders until pioneers have fully displaced the native humanoids by means of settlement, agriculture and urbanization, pushing back the borders until the Keep is a relic of a bygone era of expansion.

Yes, I’m comparing the plight of the greenskins in the Caves of Chaos to that of the Native Americans in early 19th century North America. The Indians are depicted by de Tocqueville as a noble and savage people whose virtues and vices rend them incapable of withstanding the encroachment of the Anglo-American. They are “savage” in that they have not adopted the principal trappings of civilization: settlement*, agriculture, and manufacturing. The natives were “Noble” in that they prized their freedom and independence above all things, but also, as a hunter/warrior people, looked down on efforts to ‘settle down’ and engage in the arduous work of agriculture. Indeed, the agriculture of groups who chose to settle down was beset not only by the derision of their fellows but by the lack of experience, which hampered their ability to compete with the Anglo-Americans.

As pioneers pressed westward into the American Wilds, game would flee before them. The sounds of agriculture and husbandry was said to have driven game unknown even to the pioneers far beyond hills and rivers, thus, tribes were puzzled at the situation that had driven away their livelihoods even before they came into contact with the cause of their woes. Once the land had been rendered destitute, the natives would be faced with the lose-lose proposition: stay on the land of their fathers which could no longer support them, or sell and move west with the game in the vain hope that the white man would cease his indefatigable drive toward the western seas.

Now, back to fantasy land: typically green-skin demihumans are hunters. Except in settings where your typical fantasy tropes are inverted, demihumans live in isolated tribes, rarely do they live in permanent settlements, they do not engage in agricultural pursuits, nor do they engage in any sort of manufacturing. They often have to trade for what they themselves cannot make, and that which they cannot trade for, they steal.

Now, the civilized race of Men build their cities and extend their municipalities, farmlands and hunting grounds into the wilds that are inhabited by these less civilized peoples. By doing so, they make it increasingly difficult for the demi-humans to provide subsistence for themselves by their traditional means. While the goblins could theoretically attempt to settle down and take up farming, they are disadvantaged by not having a long history of agricultural knowledge upon which they can build. They would work harder, work for less and be shamed by the derisions of their hunters and warriors. For these reasons, when Humans and Demi-humans come into contact with one another, they are destined for conflict. The Human sees the lands inhabitted by the Demi-Humans as ill-used: they do not build towns on it, they do not till it, they do not use it for manufacturing. The land is worth more in terms of real output and productivity to the civilized race than the savage. The encroachment of Human civilization exacerbates the wants and needs of demi-humans, who come to desire manufactured goods but have little means of acquiring them, less so because of the decrease in local game. The demi-humans then have no recourse but to wage war on the encroaching civilization or flee deeper into the wilds.

Games and settings may introduce ideas and concepts such as evil gods as an primemover of conflicts between monstrous demi-humans and humans, but even in the absence of such devices, the two cultures would inevitably clash until the primitive culture is destroyed by the heroic force of pioneers determined to seize all that providence has laid before them or the savage culture adopts enough of a degree of civilization that it can maintain itself and retain a claim to land on slightly more equal footing as their oppressor.

Consider the Borderlands scenario. What would it take for the peoples of the Caves to reach a sort of parity with the Keep? They would need a Keep of their own in order to stake claim to the land and protect those who would work the soil there. The Keep exists to protect the farmers who are pressing eastward, who would make better use (i.e. more productive and profitable use) of the land by establishing farms, towns and manufacturing, than the demi-humans who merely ‘reside’ in the caves, hunt and forage for food.

If the demi-humans somehow miraculously seized the Keep, they would take something from it: the advantages presented of civilization to the savage. It would afford them the opportunity to make use of the land better, incorporate some semblance of the culture and social structure which they have overtaken, in the way that eastern European barbarian tribes began to adopt the trappings of the Romans which they overran. When the opposite happens, however, and civilization defeats savagery, the civilized men take little to nothing from the Savage and the savage is wiped from the face of the earth. If the Caves of Chaos were conquered, what would be the benefit of the Humans? They would merely plunder and reclaim what was there of value (much of which was likely acquired from civilization through trade or plunder), return it to their economy, and leave the caves abandoned as municipalities sprung up in the Keep’s vicinity.

By their nature, the forces of the Cave stand no chance, however, against the encroachment of Man, Civilization and the forces of the Keep, comprised of adventurous individuals who are determined to press into the wilds in the name of that civilization and personal wealth and glory. The Caves embody the Lost Cause of the savage peoples, too proud to turn their swords to plowshares and too stubborn to continue giving up ground to the neighboring civilization. As they make their last stand, they face the inevitable fate of destruction from this earth just as those proud nomads of North America did so long ago.

*:There were exceptions to this, including much older and more advanced Mississippian culture, but the Indians displaced by settlers were primarily nomadic peoples who followed the game in the wilds. The Cherokee fared slightly better than other tribes because they had taken up some of the arts of civilization, but it ultimately did not avail them because their settled culture was still in its infancy up against over two millenia of British civilization.

7 responses to “A Bizarre Essay in Which I Relate Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America to the Keep on the Borderlands

  1. Hm. This gave me some things to think about in terms of wilderness vs. encroaching civilization — a common theme in certain fantasy game settings.

    I’m getting some vaguely Settlers of Catan-oriented thoughts.


    • It really gave me some insights on how to handle demi-humans in-game. I’ve always had a soft spot for goblinoids, and I like that there is ample reasoning behind the conflicts between humans and goblinoid peoples beyond “Well, goblins are just evil.” I think that maybe de Tocqueville’s assessment of the Native Americans adds an interesting piece to the ongoing and eternal debate on D&D’s treatment of race, which Keep on the Borderlands is one of the most oft held up example.

      The temple of chaos in the caves is entirely incidental to the situation, in some ways. But, if I’d had more time to devote to it, I could explain how the acolytes of the temple of chaos are similar to the colonial french, who chose to assimilate with the savage population to the point where they became virtually indistinguishable, rather than attempt to dominate and bring their own culture to the natives. But again, that’s a essay unto itself…

      • As much as D&D is a fantasy game, I’ve found myself less interested in using demi-humans for the majority of conflicts unless I’m aiming specifically for an “otherness” feeling. For the most part I create antagonists from PC races and give them similar motivations and backgrounds to my players.

        I have a soft spot for goblins too, especially bugbears. I like to incorporate lots of goblins as beggars, cripples, and “matchstick girls.”


      • Yeah, there’s more flexibility with what you can do with human villains. Even when playing a game with monstrous demi-humans, I rolled them up as leveled NPCs rather than using monster entries.

        For awhile, I became so disenchanted with various fantasy races that I came to loathe fantasy in general (and thus never finished editing the fantasy book cycle I wrote because I was all “Man, screw elves…”). The tropes that fantasy races engendered felt cheap and awful despite any efforts of my own to subvert them. I find all-human fantasy settings more and more appealing with a few exceptions.

  2. Almost as much as I hate “fantastic racism” is the bum rap humans get. I hate D&D’s “humans are average” stance. “Humans are versatile.” “Humans are adaptable.”

    There are ability scores for that. Dexterity, Constitution, and Intelligence. Pick two.

    I want the “bonus skill/bonus feat/choose a favored class” shenanigans to stop.


  3. Pingback: Greenskins & Colonialism | Cirsova

  4. Pingback: Keep on the Borderlands (Sort Of) | Cirsova

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